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Attempting to distinguish between extremist groups is pointless. The cancer as a whole needs to be excised.

The north-south nexus
Thursday, September 24, 2009
Kamila Hyat

The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor

The operation against the Taliban militants continues in the north. The government has happily lapped up the praise this has brought in. Rewards in the form of cash handouts are eagerly anticipated and the government is keen these be handed over directly to it.

But how much does the victory in Swat actually mean? In some ways at least it is not insignificant. A clear signal of unwillingness to do business with the militants has finally been delivered. The military appears to have been persuaded of the need to go in against them without holding back. Key arrests made over the past few days point to a new determination. The initially sceptical people of Swat now seem more convinced that this time round the operation is indeed intended to go beyond the cosmetic and achieve the defeat of the Taliban who had controlled the area for months.

But despite this, there is some question as to how far the overall picture has changed. The series of devastating suicide attacks we have seen since August – at the Torkham border post, in Mingora and in Kohat – is evidence the Taliban remain operational. There have been other attacks as well, claiming fewer lives but also signalling that it is far too early to claim victory over terrorists.

Meanwhile, a UK newspaper has described the establishment of a 4.5 acre compound by the Jaish-e-Muhammad on the outskirts of Bahawalpur. Quite bizarrely, the group, banned in 2002, says this is intended to raise cattle. Officials in the town take the same line. They do not explain why the cattle – no matter how well they are to be cared for – need fountains, a tiled swimming pool, a playground or elaborate housing quarters. Perhaps more important is the question of why the group, headed by Maulana Masood Azhar, has been able to continue functioning quite openly despite the ban placed on it over seven years ago.

The answer quite obviously lies in the fact that outfits like the JeM had, at one point at least, agency support. Azhar, who had links with Somali-based Al Qaeda-sponsored groups, was the 1990s active in Indian-held Kashmir where he had gone to broker a deal between warring factions of Kashmiri groups involved in ‘jihad’. Azhar was arrested by the Indians in 1994 – and was freed in 1999 on the demand of hijackers who took an Indian passenger aircraft to Kandahar, then controlled by the Taliban. Azhar returned to Pakistan, has addressed large gatherings on various occasions and like Hafiz Muhammad Saeed of the Lashkar-e-Taiba, is thought to enjoy ‘protection’ from powerful quarters. This would explain why both men have so far evaded arrest.

This attempt to distinguish between the ‘jihadis’ engaged in the past in Kashmir and the ‘terrorists’ active in the north obscures the message as far as battling militancy is concerned. Such lines cannot be drawn up between forces engaged in violence and the spread of extremism. Both inflict similar damage. There are plenty of accounts of boys trained at madressahs in Punjab joining hard-line militant forces based in tribal areas. The policies that have in the past led to these ‘jiahdi’ groups, many based in the Punjab, being patronized must be reversed. The government needs to step in and ensure this.

There is a third category of militants. The blood-thirsty sectarian killers who make up the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan and its even more violent offshoot, the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. These forces too, despite bans, remain operative and have been involved in recent attacks on Christians. Independent investigators suspect they have done so with at least tacit official support from local administrations and police.

The different groups are not entirely isolated from each other. Indeed, the ruthless young leader of the Tehrik-e-Taliban, Hakeemullah Mehsud, emerged from the SSP. So did his cousin, Qari Hussain, another Taliban commander who holds expanded power since the death of Baitullah Mehsud and is known for his fondness for personally carving ‘enemies’ into small pieces with knives and for brainwashing children into becoming suicide bombers. Indeed, even the Afghan Taliban, who intervened to end a power struggle following the death of Baitullah, are said to be wary of the flamboyant Hakeemullah and may have preferred to see the more sedate Waliur Rehman in command. However Wali was given charge of the crucial Waziristan region and overall command was given to Hakeemullah to avoid a split of the Taliban, which at one point had seemed almost inevitable.

Hakeemullah and Qari Hussain are known to retain links with the SSP and could be a factor in the recent resurgence in activity seen from them. It is clear Hakeemullah wishes to make his mark quickly. The new TTP chief, unlike his introverted predecessor, is known for his media savvy. Late last year he had invited a group of rather scared journalists from NWFP to introduce himself to them. The contingent wound its way up in five vehicles to an Orakzai Agency village. They were invited to a shooting contest by Hakeemullah and treated to the spectacle of the commander hurling a grenade or two to demonstrate his expertise with all kinds of weapons. Tribesmen guarding him meanwhile directed a wild volley of bullets towards an aircraft that they said was a US drone but which some journalists thought was a passenger aircraft. Most who attended the unusual media conference returned somewhat shaken and were left in no doubt at all about Hakeemullah’s ambition or his disregard for human life.

The fact that he has established contacts with Punjab-based forces makes the picture all the more alarming. It is possible these groups may be used in an effort to spread the net of terror beyond the tribal areas. The fact that more and more interconnections exist between terrorist forces based across the country, even though there may be slight differences in their ideological emphasis, makes it crucial that they be dealt with in a similar fashion. Only then can there be any real hope of tackling extremism and stopping the social havoc it has already created.

Attempting to distinguish between groups and pare away some using a fine surgical blade is pointless. The cancer as a whole needs to be excised and extremist groups tackled no matter where they are based. The task at hand has already been neglected for far too long. This means it is now more difficult to complete. The success in Swat, however, suggests a way forward. Similar strategy, combined with intelligence as to the working of the various groups and the way they operate, must now be adopted to save the state from the threat they present.

Email: kamilahyat@hotmail.com (The News)